Everybody loves Luca

Newport Harbor High's Luca Cupido is the Daily Pilot High School Athlete of the Week.
(Don Leach, Daily Pilot)

It would be fair to say that Luca Cupido has taken the Newport Harbor High aquatics community by storm.

The 6-foot-4 senior has made waves ever since arriving in Newport Beach two months ago from his hometown of Santa Margherita Ligure, along the northern coast of Italy.

The Sailors’ pool deck was even more packed than usual for the Battle of the Bay last weekend, and it makes sense that at least some of the people were there to see Cupido perform. He didn’t disappoint, scoring three goals to tie for the team lead and also coming up with four steals in the Sailors’ 10-8 win.

Then there was the lob penalty shot he put in during the finals of the South Coast Tournament last month against Mater Dei. People are still talking about that one.

Cupido is unquestionably one of the best field players in CIF. The top scorer for Coach Robert Lynn’s Sailors, he has helped Newport Harbor to a 13-3 record entering this weekend’s S&R; Cup tournament, as well as a No. 3 ranking in CIF Southern Section Division 1.

Yet he also is fun-loving, charismatic and, yes, a little bit flashy.

“He’s from Italy, so that’s always cool,” Newport sophomore girls’ water polo player Sammie Garcia said.

Oh yes, the girls factor. Take away the “O” from his last name, and you have the effect that he has on many of the girls on Newport Harbor. Though he’ll be called this for the purpose of this Athlete of the Week article, don’t call him Cupido. He’s already on a first name basis among the Sailors and their fans.

He’s just “Luca,” a four-letter name that’s fun to say, kind of like “Kobe” if you’re a Los Angeles Lakers fan. It’s also fun to use on Twitter as a hashtag, #luca, something some of the players on the Newport girls’ team have done in recent weeks.

Cupido, who said he doesn’t currently have a girlfriend, learned about their love for him at the Battle of the Bay when he forgot his robe in the locker room prior to the team introductions.

“I run across the deck from the bench, and I hear, ‘Whoa!,’ girls shouting,” he said. “I turned and I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know I had this big fan club.’ I didn’t expect this. I knew there was all the people, but I didn’t know it was a lot of people for me. Yeah, I like it, it’s good.”

It’s all in good fun, and Cupido smiles when the opposite sex is brought up.

“Probably it’s the accent that they like,” he said with a big grin.

With regard to skill, Cupido is definitely a sight to see. He has been refining those skills since he was 8 years old. He also is a winner. Last December, he scored four goals in the final as Italy won the FINA Youth World Championships in Australia. More recently, in August, he was part of the Italian team that again captured gold at the FINA Junior World Championships in Hungary.

The next couple of days after that were a whirlwind. Cupido immediately moved from Italy to Newport Beach with his mother, Danielle. His father Andrea stayed behind in Italy, where he works in insurance in nearby Genoa. Luca said his father would be visiting California this fall to see both him and his older brother, Giacomo, who is a senior water polo player at UC Berkeley.

“I finished the World Championships,” Cupido said. “The day after, I came back to Italy, closed the luggage and left for America. I spent all of the day saying good-bye to my friends. It’s a radical change, but thanks to my parents for giving me this opportunity. I think for them, it’s the best way to combine school and water polo, because here sports have a lot of importance inside of the school program. In Italy, it’s all separated.

“I chose Newport because it’s a wonderful spot. [I wanted to] combine the water polo and school, and to improve my English for next year for college. I want to go to college here in California, and I thought this was the best way to get more comfortable for freshman year of college.”

Cupido said he’s loving the Orange County life now. His mother would be more familiar with the Golden State, as she was born in San Francisco. This means Luca has dual citizenship, but he had lived in Italy his whole life.

“When I saw [Newport Beach] for the first time, I just said, ‘Wow,’” he said. “It’s the California I imagined, when you see it in the TV programs. Even the life in high school, it’s like they say in the films, with the cheerleaders and everything. Then I went to the beach, Balboa Island, and it’s so very nice. I said. ‘Wow. It’s a very wonderful spot.’ I lived in a wonderful spot [in Italy]. So I said, ‘Wow, I’m very lucky. I moved from a wonderful spot to another wonderful spot.’ I can’t complain.”

There’s not a lot of complaints when it comes to Cupido’s game, either. Newport Harbor frosh-soph coach Marco Palazzo said Cupido’s explosiveness in the water is not by accident. Palazzo, himself an Italian, played six years on the Italian national team, and was a U.S. men’s national team assistant coach at the London Olympics in 2012.

“It’s a different sport,” Palazzo said. “What we teach in Europe is all about legs. Water polo is legs. If you don’t have that base of legs, it’s like another sport. It’s like you play basketball, but you cannot jump, you cannot use your legs. You can see the school [Cupido has] had, it’s completely different than here.”

It’s at least partially about creativity as well, thinking outside of the box. The penalty shot lob against top-ranked Mater Dei was a prime example, and Cupido unleashed a wild celebration after he scored it.

Cupido said he only turned to the lob shot because some Monarchs players were provoking him before that. After the lob went past 6-foot-9 Mater Dei senior goalie McQuin Baron and the ensuing celebration, Mater Dei’s Matt Payne pointed at the scoreboard.

Any trash talk aside, Mater Dei Coach Chris Segesman called the shot “a brilliant idea” after the match. The computer in the Sailors’ team room now has that video on it.

“If you don’t try, you’ll always be one of the many,” Cupido said. “If you always do the same things, no one will see you ... It’s fun to do something different. It’s a sport, you need to win, but I think you need to have fun also.”

One thing is for sure. People definitely are having fun watching Luca Cupido play water polo this fall.

“He always does the unexpected,” Newport senior girls’ water polo player Christina O’Beck said. “He does these crazy shots with three people on top of him, and it still goes in the goal. The things he does, you’re speechless at first. You’re taking it all in.”

Luca Cupido

Born: Nov. 9, 1995

Hometown: Santa Margherita Ligure, Italy

Height: 6-foot-4

Weight: 198 pounds

Sport: Water polo

Year: Senior

Coach: Robert Lynn

Favorite food: Pasta al pesto

Favorite movie: “Gladiator”

Favorite athletic moment: Scoring four goals in the final to help Italy win gold at the FINA Youth World Championships last December in Australia.

Week in review: Cupido had three goals and four steals to help Newport Harbor defeat rival Corona del Mar, 10-8, in the Battle of the Bay on Oct. 5. He also had four goals in a 9-7 win over Loyola two days earlier.